It is like walking through acres of a haunted cemetery, with the
heavy odor of oil and creosote. The tombstones are the upright
factory pillars, some a century old. These are the last days, a
funeral for Big Red, the Farmall Works tractor plant in Rock
Wrecking crews last week began slashing rooftops and walls,
scattering lockers that may still carry Cubs stickers and forgotten
lunch boxes. The wreckers, razing a million square feet of
International Harvester’s Farmall heart, likely are unaware that
this once was the pride of Rock Island. Some claim that once, the
equivalent of a fourth of the city’s population worked at Farmall,
or in businesses that served the plant in its peak years of the
Big Red’s 49-acre Rock Island home is dead, about to be leveled
and buried in the rubble. It is one of the dominoes that fell when
much of the farm equipment industry collapsed in the Quad-Cities,
throwing more than 20,000 people out of work in the 1980s.
I walk in silence where 5,000 people labored when Farmall roared
and hummed through two and three eight-hour shifts each workday.
Even the pigeons now roosting on pine beams are indifferent.
Always, it will be Farmall — never IHC — where wooden floor tiles
still reek of creosote, a standard coating, and oil puddles thinly
from years of accumulation. Nothing else is left; the machinery
that turned out millions of tractors is long gone.
It will take a year to 14 months to raze the heart of the
I take one last walk through Farmall. It is eerily quiet, save
for the thump of a headache ball bashing down a faded brick wall.
It is a dim, doomed avenue of a prosperous era when 350 dazzling
red Farmall tractors a day slowly moved down the production line.
It was so big that the city allowed sections of the plant to be
built over streets, curbs and gutters, still visible.
Now, the overhead paint peels — dripping like stalactites in a
dark cave — hanging from beams that date back a century to when
part of the plant was built as Moline Plow Co. Walls are scarred,
like scabs. It breaks my heart. I remember it as a crashing,
banging, slamming roaring miracle of one of the world’s biggest
“Look out,” they’d yell when a locomotive hooted a warning to
get out of the way. Railroad tracks ran through the heart of
Farmall plant, and the CB&Q hauled tractors off the assembly
line on flatcars.
I walk the plant slowly, with John Cloninger of Rock Island, who
began 37 years ago as a mail boy and left as plant engineer after
the gates were closed on June 26, 1986. He was last man out of
Farmall, trying now to smile as he calls himself “an industrial
undertaker.” But smiles don’t work when Cloninger talks about
Farmall: “I’m at last past the stage of crying about this old
Once, Farmall was so vital to the industry that on Feb. 1, 1974,
it turned out its 5-millionth tractor. There was celebration;
employees gathered around to cheer beneath the crane trackways.
Today, those crane trackways are crumbly with rust. Water drips.
It is a dead plant.
Once, the place covered 1,900,000 square feet, wiggling around
49 narrow acres. Since closing, vast sections like the foundry and
sand shed have been wrecked and nibbled away. The sand shed’s
concrete supports still stand, jutting high and looking like
Now, it is the heart of the plant that is being leveled. A much
smaller west section of the old Farmall, though, has been remodeled
and updated and now is a unit of Moline’s McLaughlin Body Co., says
Bill Carius, who is facility manager for the current owners, L.R.C.
There are thousands of Quad-Citizens over the nation who worked
at Farmall. Spike O’Dell, the ex-KSTT disc jockey who is
morning drive-time person at WGN Radio in Chicago, remembers
working there as a security guard.
“I climbed Farmall water tower’s iron stairs on Saturday
afternoons to watch Augustana College football games across the
street,” he says. “I was 21; my first real job was a guard walking
the miles and miles of the Farmall plant. On my shelf, I still have
my Barney Fife cap that says International.”
Sally Heffernan, special projects manager for the City of Rock
Island, remembers taking classes at Augie and looking down on the
immense Farmall site. “When that million square feet disappears,
it’s going to look so different. It’s going to be interesting to
see what kind of river view they’ll have from Old Main (one of the
original buildings on ccampus).”
Farmall tractor aficionados are a cult-like group who see only
red. Ten of them from throughout Illinois hauled their tractors to
Rock Island recently to pay homage to the demise of the plant. They
were allowed inside the hulk where Max Armstrong, agribusiness
reporter for WGN, filmed a documentary about the plant. His pals
posed alongside two blocks of tractor murals painted by Mary Ramsey
in the 1960s.
“We were very melancholy to visit the plant that last time,”
says Robert Grant of Roseville, Ill., who owns two Farmalls and is
active in a group of Farmall tractor collectors.
Owners of Farmall tractors look upon them as spiritual things.
Roger Peet, a Davenport jeweler, once worked in the Farmall
foundry and says, “I hope the Quad-Cities realizes that the Farmall
plant put roofs over heads, fed families and sent thousands and
thousands of kids to college.”
Peet owns two Farmall tractors, a 1949-H and a 1973-1066. He is
adamant: “Farmall in Rock Island made the best damned tractors in
While I stroll the plant, which International Harvester took
over in 1924, I listen to Tony Penca of Carbon Cliff , Ill., who
spent a lifetime with IH.
“I don’t drive by the Farmall — after being with International
for 45 years — without wanting to cry,” he says. “There was a
camaraderie, and pride there. I don’t think friendships like that
existed in any plant, anywhere. And I mean anywhere!”
Spike O’Dell agrees. “Some of the best friends I ever had in the
world, I met at Farmall. We’re still in contact.”